Hello, boils and ghouls, welcome back to class and welcome to The Golden Age of Horror. I’m disgustedly excited to start today’s lesson because this chapter covers a time when horror cinema really came into its own. A maturing if you will. Sure, there was plenty of classic horror cinema in the decades prior, but those were just the shape of things to come, the opening band. This was the 1970s, man- and things were about to get real far out for horror movies! So let’s keep on truckin’, ya dig?
Open your textbooks to the chapter titled, Hey Man, Don’t Bogart that Body Part and let’s get the buzz on the dy-no-mite decade of dread that was the 1970s!
Get With The Times, Man
Up until this point in time, horror cinema had very few examples of true artistic merit and with a lack of artistic expression came the stigmas attached to it. Horror films were regarded as nothing more than trashy pulp stories for teenagers and rarely taken seriously by most audiences, critics and studios alike. I suppose it’s tough to take the style seriously when Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948) exists and when television starts making horror cartoons like Scooby-Doo Where Are You? (1969-1970) and Goober and the Ghost Chasers (1973). It almost goes beyond camp and into ridiculous. I mean, like jinkies!
While the old familiar tropes used in past films were still putting butts in theater seats, these recognizable images needed a refurbishing. Audiences were met with more aggression and ruthlessness in the films of the seventies. It wasn’t just the film’s contentious approaches to the subject matter that had people screaming in their seats, it was also the aesthetic and artistic integrity of the medium. Suddenly, horror pictures were artistic.
Cinematography, lighting and character development became rich, detailed qualities usually only found in dramas and mysteries at the time. But filmmakers saw this as an opportunity to bring real drama into their stories, giving audiences more than just cheap jump scares and a guy running around in a rubber monster suit.
This was also the decade where, like European and British moviemakers before that, American studios truly began to flourish within the genre. Suddenly they were the influence and it seemed to breathe a new life into a stale brand. Instead of haunted castles and gothic settings, films were now using everyday places and situations to scare us. Taking the devil out of hell and putting him into your bedroom closet seemed to do the trick as crowds almost immediately took to the notion that evil could be around any corner and not just in the countryside of Transylvania anymore.
Rabid (1977) is set in the streets of Montreal, It’s Alive (1974) in a hospital and the surrounding suburbs, Invasion of the Body Snatcher (1978) takes place in San Francisco, meaning common places were no longer safe from the darkness that lurks around any corner. This affected the way horror flicks ended as well. Before, good always triumphed over evil but in the seventies, that wasn’t always the case. Sure, good could usually overcome the bad but sometimes, the dark was a little stronger than the light resulting in some not-so-happy endings. The Omen (1976) is a shining example of a postmodern horror film where demons and the Antichrist are the villans within a dystopian worldview and… spoiler alert… the ending ain’t a happy one.
Stick It To The Man, Man!
A few influences from the 1960s stuck around in the 1970s, as the youth that was involved in the counterculture movement began exploring within the medium. Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes (1977) and The Last House on the Left (1972) certainly took audiences by surprise with their stark, realistic approach. Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) did the same as it used figurative commentary on the Vietnam War; while the late George A. Romero continued his social commentary zombie stories by satirizing consumerism in Dawn of the Dead (1978). Meanwhile, proof that nothing in the horror genre truly dies, the subgenre of comedy/horror rose from the dead with The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971), Young Frankenstein (1974), Phantom of the Paradise (1974) and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975) among others.
The Folksy Brits and Bloody Italians
Just because the Americans were taking the horror torch and running with it didn’t mean that the Brits and Europeans were down for the count. The English had more than a few gems up their frilly sleeves. Don’t Look Now (1973), From Beyond The Grave (1974), and The Legend of Hell House (1973), all dealt with the supernatural where Blood On Satan’s Claw (1971) and The Wicker Man (1973) ushered in the new sub-genre of folk horror focused around cults and witchcraft.
Not to be outdone by their British counterparts, Italian filmmakers Mario Bava, Riccardo Freda, Antonio Margheriti, and Dario Argento developed giallo horror films, an Italian term for thrillers with psychological, slasher and crime elements. The seventies were a golden age for these maestros of mayhem as their films would succeed worldwide with archetypical films such as The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), Twitch of the Death Nerve (1971), and Deep Red (1975).
Hail To The King
Studios even gave their old source material from the works of writers such as Poe, Stoker, and Shelley an overhaul and started adapting some more contemporary authors. William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist (1974) had a film adaptation so terrifying that it is reported that a woman actually had a miscarriage during a screening while Peter Benchley’s Jaws (1975) gave birth to the summer blockbuster and director Steven Speilberg’s career. Jay Anson’s The Amityville Horror (1979) began the “based on a true story” craze and Peter Straub’s Julia adaptation retitled Full Circle (1977) pitted Mia Farrow against the ghost of a vengeful little girl.
All great authors and novels in their own right, but there is one author who, even to this day, remains one of the most produced of all time and that is why he is King, Stephen King to be exact. Not only was King’s first novel, Carrie (1976), made into a movie featuring two female leads (Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie) in a time when it was all about leading men, but it was also nominated for an Academy Award.
The Psychology of It All
To say psychological horror was big in the seventies would be like saying water is wet but did you know that this sub-genre of horror is multifaceted? Well, by the gods, it is! From themes of evil children, alcoholism, telepathy, and insanity. Violence and murder were still prevalent but they were no longer the main focus of horror pictures. Before long movies like Alice, Sweet Alice (1976), Play Misty For Me (1971), When A Stranger Calls (1979) and Magic (1978) started making crowds worry about what could happen to the story’s protagonists, an extension of themselves, instead of what actually does take place. To quote Donald Pleasence from Terror in the Aisles (1984)…
“In effect, the filmmaker says to the audience, “Now, get ready. You’re going to see something that’s going to scare you, but I’m not going to tell you when.” You’re being programmed to go nuts.”
Cycle of The Slasher
While most will cite either Peeping Tom (1960) or Pyscho (1960) as the forefather to the modern-day slasher, few will argue that the seventies took the blueprint and added the key ingredients to what is now known as the slasher formula. A slew of stalk and kill movies scared audiences well before the boom of the early 1980s. Black Christmas (1974) and Silent Night, Bloody Night (1972) both chose yuletide terror to torture crowds while The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) and Schizo (1976) chose an ultra-realistic approach. The “teens in peril” trope was alive and well with titles like Drive-In Massacre (1976), Tourist Trap (1979), Massacre at Central High (1976) and Savage Weekend (1979) while The Toolbox Murders (1978), Three on a Meat Hook (1972) and The Driller Killer (1979) got creative with how they dispatched helpless victims.
While there were numerous offerings from the subgenre there is one title that immediately when someone mentions 70s slasher and that’s the one, the only, the classic, Halloween (1978). John Carpenter’s seminal classic paved the way for some of the biggest films of the following decade and many more beyond that and it really only told the simple story of a killer stalking a babysitter. Sounds kinda boring, doesn’t it? Trust me, it’s anything but. Carpenter crafts a story so rich with atmosphere, mythos and fleshed out characters that the viewer can’t help but feel like they’re a part of Haddonfield and the horrible things that befall it. It’s no wonder that countless filmmakers cite Halloween as the film that made them want to make horror movies.
In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream
The seventies also ushered in a mash-up of genres, the horror-sci/fi picture. And the movie that helmed the new subgenre out of the cosmos was none other than Alien (1979). Directed by Ridley Scott, the film follows the ill-fated crew of the Nostromo, an intergalactic salvage ship owned by a nefarious corporation known only as The Company. The crew, asleep in cryo chambers, is awakened on their journey home to investigate a distress call from an alien vessel. The terror begins when the crew encounters a nest of eggs inside the derelict ship. A thing from inside an egg lunges out and onto the face of one of the crew, where shortly after, he falls into a coma. Cue the carnage…
Scott’s dark, claustrophobic film set the scene for a classic stalk and slash movie but setting it in space, a place where escape is nearly impossible and having the stalker be a bonafide monster from space really set both the horror and sci/fi genres on their collective ear. After the feel-good rollercoaster ride that was Star Wars (1977) a few years earlier, audiences weren’t expecting murder and mayhem to go with their spaceships and astronauts and Alien proved a dark alternative to the slew a sci/fi movies being released at the time.
As you can see, the 1970s boasted a boatload of terror on the silver screen and an eclectic one at that. From killer sharks to killer aliens, demonically possessed tweens to the embodiment of evil slaughtering unsuspecting babysitters, the decade was dark, visceral and brutal all while maintaining an artistic impression that would change the way horror films would be made and watched for the decades to come. Gone were the days of stale, campy, gothic literary characters and in were the telekinetic girl next door and the family that lived out by the slaughterhouse and had been in meat for generations. Horror was suddenly in everyone’s backyards, in their churches, in their schools, in their heads and the genre would never be the same after the decade’s close.
There you have it, my sadistic scholars, quite an interesting chapter. Of course, if you would like to review any of the chapters we have already covered in this trip down terror lane, you can find them HERE. It’s been exceptionally agonizing this time around, kiddies, and I hate to break up the party but I gotta book. I hope you were as agonizingly cool with this chapter as much as I am. Until next time, my fiendish first-years, keep your stick on the ice, your head up and your blade buried deep in their hearts. Catch you on the slip side! And of course, let us know all about your favorite horror movies from the 1970s over on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and in the Horror Movie Fiend Club on Facebook!